Backward Glances: Actors' Favorite Houses

Special Features   Backward Glances: Actors' Favorite Houses Playbill senior writer Louis Botto takes a walking tour of stars' favorite theatres.
Fanny Brice and Bob Hope in The Ziegfeld Follies.
Fanny Brice and Bob Hope in The Ziegfeld Follies.

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Many Broadway stars have favorite theatres in which they like to perform, so much so that they become identified with them.

The best example was Fanny Brice. The great comedian appeared in five Ziegfeld Follies revues at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Dancer Ann Pennington appeared there in eight Follies, W.C. Fields in seven, Eddie Cantor in six and Will Rogers in five. All these superstars became associated with the New Amsterdam Theatre and they made the Follies the most fondly remembered revue in Broadway history.

The great Laurette Taylor found her niche in two theatres on W. 48th St., across the street from each other. She opened at the Cort Theatre in 1912 in the famous play Peg o' My Heart — written by her husband, J. Hartley Manners — and starred in it there for nearly two years. Many years later she made two outstanding comebacks across the street at the Playhouse Theatre in Outward Bound (1938) and The Glass Menagerie (1945), Tennessee Williams's first Broadway triumph.

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne found the Shubert Theatre a happy home. There they starred in Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize–winning play Idiot's Delight; two plays by S.N. Behrman, Amphitryon 38 and I Know My Love; and Chekhov's The Seagull. Ethel Merman starred in four triumphs at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon). She made her Broadway debut there in Girl Crazy and scored a sensation singing Gershwin’s "I Got Rhythm." In 1934 she captivated New York in Cole Porter's Anything Goes and two more Porter hits followed: Red, Hot and Blue! and Something for the Boys. Merman also enjoyed smashes at the Imperial Theatre: Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam and Gypsy, which moved there from the Broadway Theatre.

The Empire Theatre on Broadway and 40th St. (demolished in 1953) was the favorite house of Maude Adams, William Gillette, Katharine Cornell, John Drew, the Barrymores and Julie Harris, who appeared there in two of her favorite plays: The Member of the Wedding and I Am a Camera. "There was something special about acting on the Empire stage," she recalled, "knowing you had to reach the last row in the second balcony. The Victorian splendor gave such a sense of history, knowing the theatre greats had been on that stage."

If ever a star and a theatre were perfect for each other, it was Gwen Verdon and the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers). Verdon starred in four hit musicals there — Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town, Redhead and Chicago — and won Tony Awards for her performances in the first three.

Not all theatres please all actors. Carol Channing once told me that she disliked the Ziegfeld Theatre (Sixth Avenue and 54th Street, demolished in 1966) because, she said, it had faulty acoustics. "I scored a big hit there in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but it was very disturbing. From that stage, you couldn't hear the audience's reaction." Channing's memories of the Ziegfeld were not all bad. "When the final curtain came down on the opening night," she said, "Noël Coward came backstage, sank to his knees, kissed my hand and thanked me for a magnificent performance."

Jerry Orbach and Gwen Verdon in <i>Chicago</i> at the 46th Street Theatre.
Jerry Orbach and Gwen Verdon in Chicago at the 46th Street Theatre.
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